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Analysis & Opinion
15.08.11 Time To Burn The Books
By Svetlana Kononova

The Russian government has announced plans to abolish the so-called “work books” – official personal documents that trace one’s employment history – in 2012. Recruitment experts support the idea, claiming that work books have long since served their purpose and can easily be replaced with employment contracts. But employers and staff have different attitudes toward the proposal, since work books are both a means to put pressure on unruly employees and a convenient way to track official employment records.

Work books were implemented in Soviet Russia in 1918, when the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets changed the country’s Constitution. According to the new law, all citizens were obliged to work. Paradoxically, the first Russians to receive work books after the revolution were the so-called “class aliens:” people of independent means, business owners, tradesmen, brokers, private lawyers and creative professionals. They all were obligated to perform compulsory public service – street cleaning, for example. Information about their work hours was recorded in personal labor books, which were also recognized as identification cards. “Class enemies” with no work books were imprisoned; it was impossible to travel inside the country and get food stamps without a labor book.

In the 1920s, the Soviet government tried to expand the work book requirement to all residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but the document didn’t replace passports.

In 1939 Josef Stalin finally instituted labor books for all citizens of the Soviet Union. The design of a Soviet work book was very similar to that of an Arbeitsbuch in fascist Germany. Since then work books became one of the main documents in the Soviet Union – and an effective means to put pressure on employees. Labor books tied staff to enterprises and prevented people from moving even inside the country. Any person who sought work for himself and not for the state became an outlaw. Work books also prohibited people from taking on more than one job. If one was fired for political reasons, a record was made in the work book, precluding one’s further professional development.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, work books continued to be used for tracking employment history and pension calculations. Even now, when pensions are calculated and disbursed by the Pension Fund and all information is stored on computers, most Russians are against cancelling labor books. A recent poll conducted by the research center of the recruitment Internet portal SuperJob.ru found that 35 percent of respondents support the move to get rid of work books, while 46 percent are against the idea.

“A work book doesn’t play any significant role. Its cancellation scares conservative specialists with a long employment history. But the Pension Fund tracks all the information about a person’s career anyway,” said Alexander Zakharov, the president of SuperJob.ru.

Yuri Virovets, the president of the recruitment company HeadHunter, agreed. “I am sure that it is time to abolish work books. They turned into a bureaucratic formality that puts meaningless stress on the resources of enterprises. HR departments have to practice this ‘calligraphy’ that nobody needs, instead of paying more attention to real problems of human resources management,” he said.

Sophia Gromova, a corporate labor rights lawyer at the Ancor recruitment holding, thinks that the abolition of work books can have both positive and negative consequences. “Cancelling labor books will help stop fraudulent actions on behalf of both an employee and an employer. For example, the worker can take their labor book home and later file a lawsuit against the employer for compensation, because the company ‘lost’ the work book and deprived one of the opportunity to work for a new employer. Such cases have been known to happen in judicial practice. On the other hand, work books may be used as a way to put pressure on employees. An employer may threaten to withhold a labor book or to make a record in it that one was fired for an inadequacy,” she said. “However, the absence of labor books would prevent employers from seeing why a candidate left his or her previous place of work. From my point of view, this is a disadvantage.”

Strangely enough, the international practice of requesting reference letters and phone conversations with previous employers is still rare on the Russian job market. In most cases, reference letters are required for domestic workers (babysitters, housekeepers, personal drivers, etc.) only – most likely because rich Russians really care who works for them. Large international companies also require reference letters with contacts from previous employers. “The most interesting are not the references supplied by the candidate, but from their direct supervisors at their previous jobs. Finding these people is not a problem for a professional headhunter,” Virovets said.

However, average Russian companies rarely use this practice. According to Superjob.ru data, only one in five employers does a background check on a candidate with reference letters. One in seven conducts tests, while the majority – about half – still rely on labor books for information.

HR-officers have a rather conservative attitude toward work books. A poll conducted by HeadHunter found that half of recruiters think labor books are necessary. Twenty three percent said they are ready to abandon them right away. Others believe that work books may be needed in some cases but not others, and might be replaced with something else, by which many mean a unified electronic database that would include information on taxes and pensions. Tellingly, only six percent of respondents said that job contracts are a good replacement for labor books – this shows that an employment contract still isn’t a trustworthy or respectable document in the eyes of most Russians.

The Federation of Russia’s Independent Trade Unions called the proposal to abolish work books “insufficiently elaborated.” The main arguments against it are that firstly, information about pension contributions is available in the Pension Fund’s electronic database only if an employer pays in to the fund on time. If a company transfers nothing, it looks like the employee is not working, and it would be very difficult for one to prove his or her employment history and to receive his pension. Secondly, any electronic database may be hacked, which would force thousands of people to prove their own employment history by other means. Moreover, representatives of the federation note that work book data is used to calculate different social benefits, such as workers compensation and others.

However, recruitment experts don’t think that anything will change significantly on the Russian job market if work books are abolished. “An employment contract can take on the main functions of labor books. But it is necessary to change the public’s attitude toward this document. Many people believe that it is impossible to protect their rights with a job contract, but it’s not true,” Zakharov said.
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